Where Madison Ave. Meets Christopher St.
Back in February, just in time for Valentine’s Day, retail giant Walmart released a series of long-form ads called “Love in the Aisle.” Personally, I find very few things less romantic than a trip to Walmart, but I have a general notion of how advertising works, so…okay, I’ll accept the premise, begrudgingly.
However, I was shocked—pleasantly—by one of the ads called “Pat and Andy.” It detailed a blind date, where roaming the aisles of a giant grocery-convenience store would provide the social lubricant necessary to ease the awkward small talk that usually accompanies two strangers who are looking for love meeting for the first time.
Most of the ad’s charm came from the lead characters, and the subtle differences between them. Pat was slightly fussy, Andy slightly aloof; Pat was at home in a kitchen, Andy didn’t own a cast-iron skillet; Pat had never tasted a Little Debbie snack cake, and Andy likes puns. Also, Pat was a gay man, and Andy…was also a gay man.
And while their patter was slightly too clever to be real, I found myself hoping that this relationship worked out for them, and envisioned a follow-on ad where the two return to the site of their first blind date to purchase items for the beach home in Rehoboth they just purchased.
Not long after, toilet paper brand Cottonelle released a spot called “Down There Care.” It featured a young man nervous because “today’s the day you meet the parents,” and suggesting that a superior wipe will boost one’s confidence. Again, I’ll grant you a begrudging acceptance of the premise, helped by the fact that this spot runs a scant 15 seconds. And by the surprise ending, that he’s meeting the parents of his boyfriend.
It was April when I first noticed an ad by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. It was about “Jen and Maya,” a lesbian couple who own a bakery and look forward to adopting a child one day. They have happily placed their trust in Miguel, a certified financial planner, to help them prepare for a happy lifetime together.
What struck me about this ad, other than the gay women at its center, was that it ran on MSNBC amid stories of the Mueller report and a mass shooting on foreign soil—not news catered to the LGBTQ community in any way. Sure, it was the “liberal” news channel, but its placement meant that straight people were being asked to identify with the particular hopes and fears of a pair of young lesbians. While I’d seen many images of LGBTQ people in ads before, this felt new to me.
Just last week, I was traveling for business, had just passed the Delta ticket counter to have my boarding pass scanned, and was waiting behind a long line of passengers. I was the definition of a captive audience, and so—no surprise here—Delta had taken the opportunity to show me photos of ecstatic travelers. It was paired with copy that touted their frequent flyer programs, credit cards, and an extra three inches of legroom.
I saw a mother and child, a collection of friends, an older married couple, and then—two young, red-headed, bearded men, one with his head resting gently on the shoulder of the other. These weren’t friends or brothers; this was a couple, each enjoying their extra three inches of legroom and the love they shared.
I looked ahead, then behind me. No visibly gay people from what I could tell. Of course, still dressed in corporate drag, I wasn’t terribly visible myself. And yet, here was this ad, asking many straight vacationers and travelers to feel, along with these homosexuals, a twinge of romantic longing and therefore, a desire for an extra three inches of legroom.
Given that this is America, land of the free and home of the Dow Jones, does this mean we’ve finally arrived? Surely not; our fight for equality hasn’t yet reached its conclusion.
But it does feel like significant, if subtle, progress. When advertisers are confident that large numbers of heterosexual customers will be able to summon the empathy to identify with the LGBTQ characters in their tiny stories, that’s not the same as a drag queen selling make-up to other drag queens, or beautiful same-sex couples enjoying a particular brand of vodka in a magazine that only queer people read.
After all, this is the USA. It’s one thing to tolerate us; it’s quite another to trust us to sell your stuff. ▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity & inclusion educator and pop culture enthusiast living in Washington DC. He is the co-host of a weekly podcast about old movies; visit his website at www.rewindpod.com.